BENIN’S OGUN: God of Iron/War (Revised)
By Chief Dr. Daryl M. Peavy
Ogun-an embodiment of the magical force of transformation. Ogun is traditionally known as the deity of Iron and War. He traveled throughout Africa, where his trail can be seen through metal working and warfare.
His name has taken on many pronouncements such as Ogun, Ogu, Ogwu just to name a few. He is attached to ironworkers and metal, as well as their instruments. He is not only associated with war, but also hunting, medicine, magic, healing and the alchemical process of change. Through their travels, hunters, priest, herbalists, and diviners spread the Ogun cult through West Africa (Barnes 1989, 8).
The stories of Ogun are archaic. The origins of Ogun probably evolved out of an iron-aged culture that valued war, as well as warriors, and the instruments of war and tools. According to Sandra T. Barnes, “The genesis of Ogun …likely involve a deification that grew out of a set of commonly held notions about the mystical properties of iron and the powerful people who made or used it.” (1989, 5). The alchemical power of transformation is important to the traditional African holistic worldview of the cosmos as a deity, Ogun—a transformational and creative force best expresses this view.
The Edo people are famous for iron, brass, metalworking magic-medicine and their proud warrior culture. They have been aware of this mystical-magical power and its association with greatness for at least a millennium. In the Iha Ominigbon oracle—indigenous divination system of the Edo people, one of the Owiha’s that is associated with Ogun, blacksmiths and metal is Eghae Aho. Eghae Aho calls upon the mystical powers of this deity, The Iha Omingbon divination system dates back thousands of years and is incorporated into the royal palace native doctor society (Peavy work in progress). There continues to be royal bronzecaster guilds (Igun Eronmwon), metalworker guilds (Igun Ematon), medicine guilds (Ebo), magical guilds (Ewaise), and hunting guilds (that are associated with Ogun deity one way or another.
In Benin cultural displays, there are archaic ceremonial war festivals (Isiokuo, Ugie Ogun) to Ogun displaying the transformative power of this deity (Peavy 2009), as well as annual festivals depicting enactments of battle between the Benin king and town leaders in civic pageants dedicated to Ogun (Barnes 1989, 6).
In reference to the Benin kingdom, according to Barnes, “…a brass plaque depicting a Benin warrior wearing miniature iron tools the almost universal symbols of Ogun—that dates to the fifteenth or sixteenth century. And even earlier (1989, 5-6)
There are some Edo names that represent the power of the deity. Ogunbo—one who the god of Iron have favored, Ogunamen—the comfort from the god of Iron, Oogundigiee—god of Iron is established, etc. Before Oba Ewuare ogidigan (the great) became king of the Edo empire, he was known as okoro or prince Ogun and his many war exploits. Below is a revised excerpt from “Kings, Magic & Medicine” that gives a more in-depth reading of Ogun in Edo land.
The Edo people believe that the god of Iron–Ogun–represents creative energy. His creative energy is manifested in iron and metal works. He is a hot and fiery deity (Nevadomsky in Galembo 1993, 25). Ogun is also the deity of war and associated with killing. In addition, he is also necessary in healing and is associated with medicine and those in professional occupations (Awolalu 1996, 32). Some of the god of Iron’s symbols include the machete, hoe and cauldron. He is the forger of tools (Nevadomsky in Galembo 1993, 25).
Warriors and ritual hunters also worship the god of Iron under the name of Efae (Norborg 1992, 136-137). Ogun—a hunter himself is also the patron of blacksmiths, craftsmen, and warriors (Awolalu 1996, 32) because most of these professionals use iron and other metals in the form of tools in their respective vocations. Ogun is the trailblazer, and is essential to gods and men. Native doctors also work intimately with the forces that the god of Iron controls. With his magical machete, Ogun is able to clear obstacles from the path of good health, prosperity, and wealth (Awolalu 1996, 31). An Edo proverb illustrates the cultural importance of Ogun.
Ebo ne o we: Gha re Ogun? The Gods say “Who is Ogun?”
Ukpokpo o re a ya aro ere. He is the cutlass that clears the path to the shrine.
Through ritual knowledge, native doctors often provide protective medicines for Edo warriors against the damage from metals such as knives, machete and guns (Ero 2003, 79), and hunters against wild animals.
The Edo people believe that before tools were invented, the god of Iron first came to the physical world in the shape of umomo gedegbe (big metal rod). In a Edo creation story about metal tools, the god of Iron set fire to the okpaigha tree (Pentaclethra macrophylla). The fire melts the big metal rod (umomo) and creates iron tools—machetes, knives, hoes, digging sticks, spades, shovels, and spears, etc. (Galembo, et. al. 1993, 60).
The god of Iron is the ultimate path clearer. He owns the cutlass that clears away obstacles from one’s path. As an illustration of his power, Praise songs demonstrates both humans’ and deities’ dependence upon the god of Iron to clear obstacles from life. Ogun worship consists of devotees dancing and singing accompanied by braced goblet drums (ema Ogun) that have four legs (Norborg 1992, 137), often singing and shouting Ogun ye! (giving praise to Ogun deity).
The Edo people celebrate an annual ritual war festival (Isiokuo) in honor of the god of Iron (Ero 2003, 79). The Ilobi people who participate in the Isiokuo festival are worshippers of the Edo deified hero Ake, who was a great warrior, archer and native doctor in the Edo Kingdom. His adherents possess many war medicines that enable them to withstand the traumas of war and metal. The Ilobi people also possess protective war medicines. They demonstrated their power in herbal charms and protective medicines for iron in the festival. They also demonstrate the power of their protective medicines against poison arrows during the ritual war festival, and used these medicines to withstand injury from dane guns, cutlasses, machetes, spears or clubs (Ero 2003, 79). The god of Iron’s shrine is often located outdoors at the foot of a sacred tree. It usually contains blacksmiths tools, piles of scrap metal objects, metal ritual objects, and clay images (Peavy 2009; Galembo 1993, 60). Native doctors make offerings of palm-wine, palm oil, black dogs, snails, rams, roasted yams, and tortoises, depending on what the oracle indicated, to appease the god of Iron (Awolalu 1996, 33).
Chief Dr. Daryl is available for spiritual work, lectures, classes, rites-of-passage programs and all things related to indigenous traditions of Africa.